Saturday, January 28, 2017

Jesus for President

There was a time, a few days ago, that I considered going to bed with the dog (cause under the covers in bed with me is her happiest place--she's a skinny 9 lbs and appreciates warmth as much as I do) and pulling the covers up over my head. When I would emerge was unknown. It might not have been for days, weeks or months because, as it was becoming so very evident, the world was clearly going to hell in a hand basket. Who knows when I could be sure it would be safe again to poke my head out from under the covers?

But then I realized that impact The Donald was going to have on our society and the world would come to its full fruition only as long as people like me turned my face away from what was happening. As long as people with privilege (educated, English-speaking, Caucasian, able-bodied - shall I go on?) deny their power and keep their voices silent, the devastating effect of Trump's bigotry, racism, misogyny, classism, Islamophobia (shall I go on?) will overpower the equality and the just and the fair and the love that has been growing and evolving in society--not just in North America, but around the world.

As I was strolling through Facebook last week, I came upon this video of Rabbi Sacks speaking about  how the American presidential inauguration and the Christian concept of covenant are connected. Suddenly I felt like the scales fell from my eyes and I could finally understand why Americans seem so TENSE when one of their own fails to stand at attention during the Star Spangled Banner or if they do not place their hand over their hearts during the Pledge of Allegiance--which bears the question - why do they feel the need to pledge their allegiance all the time?

American patriotism took on a whole new level of intense in 2003 when the country band, The Dixie Chicks criticized George W. Bush at a concert they were playing in London. The band was vilified in the States because they dared to speak against the president, during war time, on foreign soil. I didn't understand the total hate the group received as a result of their 'free speech'. The careers of the three women were effectively ended as the American country music fans and artists publicly chastised them, burned their CDs and boycotted radio stations that dared to play their music. It was as if being American a patriot was an identity in and of itself and anyone who was not in TOTAL alignment other patriots, was an enemy of the state.

Rabbi Sacks reminds us, in his 15 minute video, that the Republic was built upon the freedoms sought by groups of Christians who had been persecuted in Europe. The Christian faith was the foundation upon which they built their new nation and the story of the Exodus felt very real to them. The long and short of it, Rabbi Sacks led me to better understand how the identity of being an American, particularly a patriot, has evolved to become almost its own religion. Which makes so much sense to me regarding the level of insult that seems to be experienced when anyone speaks against the greatness of their nation.

So, with all of this in mind, I went to my bookshelf and found Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw's book, Jesus for President. It had to be read next.

I heard Shane speak for the first time in 2011. He is a Christian who is trying to live his life as if Jesus meant everything he said and taught. He feeds the hungry, clothes the poor and gives shelter to the homeless. He knows how to connect with people. He knows how to speak the truth.

Jesus for President explores how the power and privilege within the American political system is not an unfamiliar story. Jesus' whole life and ministry bumped up against the oppressive and repressive Roman Empire. This book is full of challenge and great hope that there is some American out there who has a great understanding of what being Christian is all about.
My first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man. My first allegiance is not to democracy or blood. It's to a king and a kingdom.*
*Derek Webb - the king/kingdom is reference to Jesus.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

In Christ We're Equal (Except Outside the Church Doors)

All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need.                             Acts 2:44-47
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.                                  Matthew 5:13-16

This Sunday was the first Sunday of this year's Stewardship Campaign. The timing is off of the normal fall campaign, however, with the recommendations from the JNAC (Joint Needs Assessment Committee) expected at the end of November and the AGM taking place at the end of February, the Stewardship Committee decided to postpone the Campaign. It was thought the new timing would allow people to consider their 2017 church pledge in light of the ministry and staffing lifted up by the JNAC while bearing in mind what that would mean for the budget at the upcoming AGM meeting.
Below, I have included a section from my sermon regarding our (you and me, society, Christians) inability to talk about money. And, considering that this ministry of ours in North Calgary is almost completely self-funded, it can be challenging to plan and grow our ministry when we skirt around the issue of money.
I wrapped up my sermon with a brief description of the Stewardship Campaign - namely that every household will be contacted for a visit, either by phone or in person. One intent of each visit is that everyone will be asked to consider money and priorities. Not that they will be asked to tell the person visiting with them anything about their financial situation. Rather, each household will be invited talk amongst themselves and decide, with intention, what their pledge and commitment (volunteer as well as financial) will be to Symons Valley United Church. To finish, I asked:
Where does Sunday lie for you? At the end of the week and at the end of the dollars in your wallet? Or is Sunday the start of the week for you, where you are refreshed and rejuvenated to go out into the world, once again, to be the hands and feet of Christ, giving your dollars from the start of your week's spending?
And in answer to this question, a congregation member texted me this on Monday morning:
Excerpt from my sermon:
We may all be equal inside this building, but once we leave the front doors the realities of our secular world are put upon us once again and, like it or not, we are no longer equal. Our incomes are not the same, our stature and level of authority in our individual work places are not the same, our mobility, our state of health is not the same, our burdens, trials and tribulations are not the same nor are the lucky breaks or opportunities that enter into our world the same. And, in this outside, secular world of ours, we take care to not talk about certain issues. We worry about bragging, about being judged, about not measuring up, that we will not be understood or that we won’t fit in. So we don’t talk about certain things out in the ‘real’ world. We certainly don’t talk about money. Not openly anyway. It is gauche to talk money. It is embarrassing. It can easily manifest into envy or scorn when income levels are discussed or when people pay close attention to the purchases that are being made. We don’t talk about money out there. And that translates into not talking about money in here. It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? In here, in this building, we will talk about politics—I promised Karen that I would not mention a so-so’s name today, so let’s leave that there. But we have been known to talk politics and we talk about social concerns that others, outside these doors, would rather not discuss—the increasing Islamophobia in our world, whether we should regulate who people may love or marry, we talk about women’s rights, mental health issues and we talk about doubt—doubt in our faith, doubt in God, doubt in ourselves. All of these things we can talk about here, in a mostly civil and reasonable ways. We can open the lid on these topics and really hear from one another and learn from each other’s experiences.
But we can’t talk about money. Not easily anyway. We hem and haw around it. We talk widely and broadly about it. We talk in percentages but we very rarely get down to the brass tacks. We don’t talk about our salaries or our wages, outside of these doors and all of us would be absolutely horrified if, inside these doors, we were asked about our household income. Each and every one of us has costs, expenses and priorities that are unique to our lives once we walk out these doors. We have houses to pay for and to furnish, we have vehicles of all sorts for different purposes (says the mom of four who once drove a Yukon that sat 8 people), we have children to educate, we have children period. We have medical costs, we have family—near and far—to support, we have loans to pay and particular charities that we give to. We have responsibilities, and expectations set upon us by tradition and history that other people cannot appreciate.
And yet. In this very space, we look together at the church budget and vote on whether or not it is a reasonable thing. We agree to pay for staffing, building, mortgage costs and we pay for materials and supplies. I can include myself in this statement because although you do not see me put money or an envelope in the offering baskets each week, I donate to the ministry of this congregation through PAR, Christopher’s and my donation is deducted automatically from our chequing account each month. And through all our donations, we pay for this structure and land to be maintained and we pay for the programs that happen here and, of course, we pay for our worship to happen. You all agree to the bottom line of the budget. And here, I have to say YOU because I do not get a vote at these meetings of ours but I am right there in spirit, along with you, as you vote each AGM and declare your confidence in the Board and in the collective stewardship of this church and its people. We are there together as the budget is passed. But what happens next? Usually a meal and you go home to enjoy your Sunday afternoon. Basically the meeting ends and then alls y’all leave. There is not a bill sent to your home nor is there an expectation set of a minimum donation for walking through the door the following Sunday. You are not given the math that if our budget is roughly $560, 000 and we have about 150 active and casual households attend this congregation throughout the year, you are definitely not told that would be about $3800 per household. That does not happen.
That doesn’t happen for two reasons. One, because we don’t talk about money. And, second, because that is not what our ministry about. We are not a country club with memberships. We are a collection of people that choose to come together and create a community that makes the love that Jesus preached about during his time on earth. We strive to make that love a real and known thing in our world. We, here at Symons Valley, are so much more than a building for people to gather. More than a meeting space. More than an office space, a preschool and exercise classes. We together, the leaders of this faith community, the incredible number of volunteers who make everything that happens on this holy ground happen, those of you who come seeking strength and courage from the something out there far bigger than we can ever imagine that we call God, who come to find a sense of belonging, we understand that there are no entrance fees to family. To this family. There is no cover charged when you walk through the door. Like any other loving and caring family, there are no fees to show up for Sunday night dinner.  We are called to be the salt of the earth. The light of the world.  To being present. Being available. Being a support. To follow Jesus and to love. Love our neighbour. Love our enemy. Love the downtrodden and the ill. Love the other and the stranger. Love yourself.
And, we can’t do this without talking about money. That’s the plain and simple thing. We have to, at some point, talk about the dollars it takes to make this ministry of ours, of yours, a reality in North Calgary. The Stewardship campaign will be asking you to do this.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Jesus to Humanity: Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS)

I didn't really think through this plan of mine of reading 52 books in 52 weeks. At this, my beloved would smile knowingly and nod. I have a reputation of jumping first and asking questions second.

Questions such as:

  1. Will there be any particular order to what I read?
  2. What do I do with books that are too long/hard to read in only a week?
  3. What happens when I have to write a bazillion other things in the week BEFORE I can get to the blog? Like. You know. The sermon?
And so, 21 days into this endeavour, after I'm already ankle-deep into this commitment, these are the answers to the questions I should have asked earlier in the process:
  1. No.
  2. I will spread it out the reading and do a little bit at a time. I've discovered I have at least two books that fit into this vexing category. I have a plan for one. I'm hoping for some Divine intervention on the second.
  3. Wait until the social media goddess nags me a bit and then write standing up while waiting for my hockey player to get on the ice.
So, with that clarity in mind and having no set rules on what I read week by week, I set about deciding my book for this past week. I chose, for my reading pleasure, the thinnest book in the pile, A New Take on the Ancient Story by Clair Woodbury. And thank goodness that I did because to say it's been a full week, even without the extra reading, would be an understatement.

A number of years ago, when I was still training for ministry, I attended Learning Day hosted by Calgary Presbytery. Clair Woodbury and Joyce Madsen from the Congregation Life Centre led a session on engaging youth with the story of Jesus. I was taken with they way they presented the history and ministry of Jesus and the development of Christianity that happened after his death. And, of course, I bought his books. (That's right, there's another one somewhere in the pile.)

Clair's book is delightful read--gently walking the reader through the origins of Christianity that came into being when people began to recognize within Jesus, a man of deep faith, a leader of people from all walks of life and a prophet who spoke of God as father, as abba.

In a week of news filled with so-called Christians cheering on the American President-Elect as he prepared to take the Oath of Office, what I appreciated most about this book was the way Clair explained, quite simply, how theology has evolved over time. And how many Christians understand the Bible and the teachings of Jesus through the lens of a progressive, liberal theology. 

And I liked his summary of how Jesus wanted us to be in the world as God's children. It really is not that complicated:
"To be a follower of Jesus is, in one sense, incredibly simple - you only need to love." 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Your Mosque at the Centre of the Community. Welcome Home!

Once the leadership of Symons Valley United Church decided on the mission statement for the congregation in 2013, they worked to distill the mission statement into a succinct vision statement that would, in one or two sentences, convey to the world what their faith community was all about. Having recently moved to a newly developed area by the city of Calgary, they wanted the people who live all around the church to know that their doors were open for all people, no matter where they are in their faith journeys, their history with or without a church and no matter who they loved or who loved them. Being an affirming congregation in the United Church of Canada, it is important to the congregation that it is widely known all people, seeking to better know God and to follow the teachings of Jesus, are welcome to attend and join this community of faith. And so, after some deliberation, this became Symons Valley United Church's vision statement:

Your Church at the Centre of the Community. Welcome Home!

Since the doors opened at SVUC, the Al Makkah Prayer Group from the Al Madinah Calgary Islamic Assembly, have prayed their Friday prayers in the hall of the church. In late 2016, the Prayer Group became too big to use just the hall. The men now meet in the sanctuary and the women meet in the hall. Imam Syed Soharwardy, the founder and president of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, tells us that this is the only instance that he is aware of in the world in which Muslims pray in the primary worship space used by Christians.

Over the years the leadership from both faith communities have met together for meals and socializing. Just before I began serving SVUC, the congregation and prayer group worked together to have a Sunday inter-faith worship service. Syed offered the message that Sunday.

The history and relationship between the Christians and Muslims who both pray in SVUC is deep and rich. In my time with the congregation, our relationship has deepened and become focused on the two communities coming together in family friendly gatherings to share meals (of course!) and have facilitated conversations about our different faith traditions, rituals and scriptures. And, in light of the fact that both streams of faith descend from Abraham, the Father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we also share what is similar between our two religions and our shared histories.

Shahid blessing the congregation
This past Sunday, January 15th, we once again invited a leader from the Muslim community to join us in our worship service. We truly believe that we are brothers and sisters in faith with the Muslims who enter the church each Friday, who respectfully remove their shoes at the front entrance and who listen to the word of Allah (God) and say their prayers while facing Mecca. And so, we asked Imam Shahid Bashir to tell us the rest of the story of Ishmael, the first born son of Abraham. Shahid, his spouse and several members of his faith community joined us for the service. Shahid spoke during the message time and then, at the end of the worship service, blessed the congregation with the blessing he uses at the end of the prayer time on Fridays. He spoke it first in Arabic and then translated it into English.

In the Bible, we pretty much lose touch with Ishmael once Abraham banishes Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, out to the desert. Shahid told us the story of Ishmael and Hagar and how their actions following Abraham's abandonment of them, is the basis of the different components that make up the Hajj (Pilgrimage) to Mecca that each Muslim is required to make at least once in their lifetime. It was fascinating to hear about the ongoing life story of a relatively minor character in the Bible. Ishmael and his mother served a purpose in the realizing of God's promise to Abraham that he would have as many descendants as stars in the sky. However, once Ishmael's purpose no longer propels the story of the creation Israel, his character is dismissed. And yet, we are taught that he is the Father of
Scot Middleton thanking Shahid
Islam. So, something significant must have happened once his mother and him survived the desert. And now, thanks to Shahid, we know.

Scot Middleton, the Chair of the SVUC Board, thanked Shahid at the end of the service. Scot reminded the congregation, Shahid and his Muslims sitting with us, that Symons Valley United Church feels strongly that, as much as we are the Church at the centre of the community, so is the building:

Your Mosque at the Centre of the Community. Welcome Home!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Praying As Fast As I Can

I first started serving Symons Valley United Church, I was one of the two ministers they had planned to call. The problem was that the second minister was not available to begin at SVUC for another six months. When people asked me what my new work involved, I would was start with,  "Well, I'm alone in team ministry and so I'm doing a bit of everything." One of those things that I had to do a lot for those six months was preach. Until my first month with SVUC, I had never preached two Sundays in row, much less preach a month of sermons. About half-way through that very full time, a kind someone asked me, with ernest, HOW I was doing? My response was intended to be humorous but I have to admit, a bit of despair snuck in. I answered, "Well, it's incredible...Sundays just keep coming each and every week!" I have always loved preaching however having to do everything I had to do and then write a sermon each and every week's end and then preach it was exhausting. I felt quite proud and satisfied with my ability to keep up with the weekly at the end of the six months but I have to tell you--I was SO happy to hand over the bulk of the preaching responsibilities to my new teammate when she arrived. Of course, over the past five years, things have changed dramatically in our staff team here at SVUC and now I am the main preacher. And I love it.

Anyway. I tell you all of this because, in my second week of reading 52 books in 52 weeks, my thoughts earlier this week were, "oh my goodness, is it a new week? What do you mean it is time to read another book again!?" And, then later this week, "arg! I need to now write about the book! WHAT was I thinking!?"

But I have to tell, without any intent, I picked THE PERFECT book for this week. I chose not to choose which book I was going to read after last week's Insurrection by Peter Rollins--I just took the book that was next on top of the pile I have on my desk. It happened to be Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott.

Anne Lamott is a bit of hero of my mine--theologically speaking. She has written a number of books based on her faith journey, her doubts, her certainties, the struggles she has experienced in her complicated and very full life, her complete and total love for her son, her grandson and her God and her total and complete dismay and despair over certain presidential administrations in the USA.

Peter Rollins took me on a bit of mind-blowing read last week in his exploration of what would happen if we just acknowledged that our God is not one who will save the day. Nor will God actually do anything with our rites, rituals and doctrinal declarations. God will not heal by faith alone or if you just believe hard enough. What do we do with a God like that? The book was full challenging and beautiful theological points but it was rather philosophical. I missed feeling connected with God. It was head stuff not heart stuff.

Anne, however, is all about the heart. She also believes in a God that will not actually DO anything with your prayers other than reflect them back to you or use them to shine a light on someone else's situation that desperately needs your attention. Despite this understanding of God's power (or lack thereof, depending on how you look at it), Anne believes deeply that prayer has power beyond anything we can imagine to assist us in healing and becoming a healthier version of ourselves. God's power sits right there, with us as we pray.

I have been holding tightly to this book this week, as we enter into the last week on earth that does not have as its US president, The Donald. Anne's book has reminded me that when all seems lost and it seems nothing more can be done, you can still pray. This week I've been praying. A lot.

Twitter, Facebook and journalists are all freaking out, in these last days, as the full weight of what's about to happen descends upon the citizens of the USA. Marches, rallies and protests are being planned for the day after Inauguration Day. Who knows what is going to happen. I have been a bit obsessed with listening and reading about all the craziness that is going around the appointing of this or that person, the growing awareness that Obamacare IS, in fact, THE SAME as the Affordable Care Act and the mounting worry of potential loss of freedoms and rights that have been granted over the past eight years.

If I think I  have got a little knotted up these past few days I wonder what Anne Lamott is going through. She has not made secret her thoughts over the presidential administrations of both Bushes. I think she is going to lose it when the Trump Administration begins in ernest. From other books by her that I have read, I know, for a fact, that one of the key components of her surviving Trump--emotionally, psychologically, spiritually--will be through prayer. She may even start with "Help!"

Here is a prayer she includes in her book that she "uses in a pinch" (p. 34)

Hi God.
I am just a mess.
It is all hopeless.
What else is new?
I would be sick of me, if I were You, but
            miraculously You are not.
I know I have no control over other people’s
            lives, and I hate this. Yet I believe that if I
            accept this and surrender, You will meet
            wherever I am.
Wow. Can this be true? If so, how is this
            afternoon—say, two-ish?
Thank You in advance for Your company and
You have never once let me down.


Friday, January 6, 2017

An Insurrection

Happy New Year!
Each January I find myself feeling compelled to set New Years resolutions. It is always a fine balance when deciding what kind of resolution I would like to commit myself to for the upcoming months. Resolutions are supposed to make your life better in some way but if you make the goal too big, it is hard to fulfill and you might be in danger of spending the rest of the year fighting the feeling of having failed rather than accomplishment.

A certain someone in my life frets when I declare my resolutions. They are worried for me that I might not succeed and will end up feeling bad. They don't want me to feel bad. Which is kind and compassionate but sometimes the fretting makes me rethink my grand plans and I pull back on my resolution. I re-evaluate the odds for fulfilling my goal and adjust so that the goal seems more likely. That should have happened 7 days ago.

But it didn't. They didn't.

In a very supportive and loving way, the One Who Frets repressed their fretting. No effort was made in encouraging me to re-examine this New Year's resolution. Just a smile and a nod and, 'that sounds like an interesting plan'.

And now, today, I'm thinking, shoot. Maybe the plan was too grand.

Here's the plan...

I have a bazillion books in my life that I WANT to read. That I have purchased and lined up on my bookshelves. That I have carried back and forth between my office, the house, along with me on study leave, on personal trips, in my purse, in my work bag, to my daughter's swim meets, on airplanes, to the library and to the coffee shop. I have carried and ported these books but I have not read them. Not yet.

Bazillion might be a wee exaggeration but only just. I have many, many books. And they all promise to fabulous. They cover a range of topics - hard core theology, what I consider to be theology-lite, memoirs, environmental, preaching great sermons, church growth, church history, advice on writing and, of course, prayer.

My problem is time. When is there time to just read?

During my sabbatical last year I dedicated myself to reading not one but two books nearly every week. I read a 'theology-lite' book each morning as I drank my tea and lingered at the breakfast table. And I read another book, usually a text book or a more serious non-fiction book that needed a bit of concentration, in the afternoon. I learned so much in those weeks. I have used several of my sabbatical books as inspiration in my preaching and in leading worship upon my return to congregational ministry. I have also used the wisdom and advice offered in those readings to guide my leadership within the congregation. Reading current and challenging books has been very beneficial. I miss it.

So...I'm going to concentrate this next year on catching up on my reading. And I actually have some 50-odd books that I want to read sooner than later. I've lined them all up on my bookshelf and will start making my way through them. Each morning I will dedicate some time to reading a book. A chapter or two a day. One book a week. 52 books in 52 weeks.

Pretty grand, hey?
A little ambitious, I know.
Where was the One Who Frets when it was time to talk me down on Dec 31st?

The only hope I have of making it even part way through the year is to be accountable. So, not only will I read a book each week, I also plan to put up a note on this-here blog each Friday to let you know that I've actually read it.

Which brings me to today. I did read a book this week. Insurrection by Peter Rollins (who happens to be my most favourite Irish philosopher/theologian and I LOVE hearing him when he's on a roll at the Festival of Homiletics.)

The book was great! So great that I've been making notes for future sermons. And so I don't want to tell you EVERYTHING about it here. But, I will leave you with this one short paragraph so that you may ponder...let me know what you think:

When God is found in love itself, then the very act of loving brings us into immediate relationship with the deepest truth of all. In love, the fragile, broken, temporal individual or cause that draws forth our desire becomes the very site where we find pleasure and peace. God no longer pulls on us as something 'out there'; rather, God is a presence that is made manifest in our very midst. Here meaning is not found in turning away from the world but fully embracing it through the act of love. (120)